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Do You Need a Criminal Justice Degree to Become a Police Officer?

policeofficerIf you want a career as a police officer, you might be wondering whether college is worth it. You can try to get an entry-level job without a degree, but you find yourself getting passed over for promotions later if you don’t complete your education now. Earning your criminal justice degree gives you a lifelong competitive advantage, so the short-term costs are worth the reward.

Becoming a Police Officer

Requirements for becoming a police officer differ slightly from place to place, so it’s important to check with your local or state police department to find out what they expect. However, some requirements are the same no matter where you apply:

  • Age. Police officer candidates must be at least 21 years of age.
  • Citizenship. Candidates must be U.S. citizens, and they must have driver’s licenses.
  • Physical preparedness. Most police departments require job candidates to pass vision and health screenings. They also require police officer candidates to meet certain requirements for strength and agility.
  • Education. A police officer must have at least a high school diploma or GED. However, police academies are increasingly requiring officers to have some college coursework, a bachelor’s degree or an MS in Criminal/Social Justice (to learn the variety of fields you can work in with a degree, visit this page).
  • Character tests. A criminal conviction, such as a felony, can keep some people from becoming police officers. Candidates often have to pass drug tests and lie detector tests throughout their training.

Career Options in Law Enforcement

In addition to making it easier to become a patrol officer or corrections officer, a criminal justice degree builds a foundation for many different law enforcement career paths. Check out some of these more advanced career options:

  • Private investigator. After working as a police officer for a few years, you might decide to become a private investigator. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for private investigators will grow a whopping 21 percent over the next decade, and PIs can expect an average annual salary of $50,780.
  • Probation officer. Probation officer demand is expected to grow 18 percent over the next decade, and a probation officer, on average, makes $52,380 each year.
  • Crime scene investigator. If you’ve ever watched CSI and thought, “I could do that,” then a criminal justice degree can lead to a job as a crime scene investigator. Demand for crime scene investigators should grow 19 percent over the next decade, and if you choose this job, you can expect to make about $55,730 each year.
  • Paralegal or legal assistant. Lawyer job openings are growing no faster than average, but experts expect paralegal job openings to grow at an astonishing 18 percent over the next decade. Paralegals require less training than attorneys, and they can expect to make about $50,220 per year.
  • Retail loss prevention specialist. Combining your experience as a police officer and your criminal justice degree could allow you to transition to the private sector and work in retail loss prevention. Entry level positions start out at about $38,520 per year, but since you’d have your degree, you’d have a much better shot at leadership positions with higher salaries.
  • Intelligence analyst. Combine your criminal justice degree with knowledge of a foreign language or other specialized skills, and you could find yourself working in homeland security. Intelligence analysts earn as much as $86,000 per year.

If you start as a police officer and branch out into other areas, you can keep your career interesting while sticking with law enforcement for a lifetime. Earning your criminal justice degree gives you options later, which is why it’s a good idea to finish your education before becoming a police officer.

Choosing the Right Degree Program

If you’re just starting out as an adult and you’re interested in police work, look into schools that offer bachelor’s degrees. Alternatively, if you’ve already spent time in the workforce and you have a bachelor’s degree, apply to programs that offer master’s degrees in criminal justice. You can also learn more about criminal justice degrees and career options with this career guide.

Some schools allow you to take classes online, which lets you keep your current job while you train for your new career. If you’ve been dreaming of working in law enforcement, then apply to a good school today.

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